Cable networks could cash in on Republican debate ratings

Cable networks could cash in on Republican debate ratings

More people watched the first 2016 GOP debate than last year's premiere of "The Walking Dead" — and that might mean big bucks for CNN and other networks set to host subsequent contests.

Commercial ad prices for the upcoming presidential primary debates could increase after Fox News's bonanza ratings for the Aug. 6 debate.

More than 24 million people tuned in earlier this month to watch Donald TrumpDonald Trump100-day standard is 'ridiculous' to Trump because he's failed it Trump should drain the renewable fuel standard swamp Trump touts praise from Lou Dobbs on Twitter MORE and the other top nine GOP candidates on the prime-time stage. That shattered all previous debate records, and will have cable networks wondering what to expect for an encore.

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"I have no idea what type of prices the networks will charge for the debates.  A lot of it has to do with the number of eyeballs they expect to attract — and I'm sure there will be a lot of them," said Rob Siltanen, who founded the advertising firm Siltanen & Partners. 

Ad prices already tend to go up with high-profile news events like a presidential debate, compared to traditional prime-time newscasts, said Tim Kay, the director of political strategy at NCC Media, an ad sales and marketing company.

He said the Fox News ratings aren't going to cause networks to start gouging ad buyers ahead of upcoming debates — Fox News's ratings have historically been higher than other cable networks — but he noted it is a "supply and demand business."

Kay said the engaged audiences that presidential debates tend to bring in also offer lower-level campaigns a chance to buy ad time during the event in one of the 200 individual markets around the country. While advertisers can purchase national cable ads directly from a network like Fox News, others can purchase ad time at the local or hyper-local level for a fraction of the cost.  

For example, the wife of MSNBC host Chris Mathews — Kathleen Matthews, a Democrat — bought ad time in Maryland during the debate as she runs for the state's 8th Congressional District.

At the national level, a trailer for the new rap biopic "Straight Outta Compton" made headlines after running during the Fox News debate. Similarly, the National Rifle Association received attention with an ad warning of the unlikely possibility that Michael Bloomberg runs for president. Bloomberg has been involved in a number of campaigns fighting the NRA over gun control.  

The NRA declined to say how much it spent on the package of ads during the debate, but it is reportedly part of a $1 million buy that will run nationally on CNN, Fox News and local cable affiliates in Washington, Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire.   

The next two GOP forums are set for Sept. 16 and Oct. 28, hosted respectively by CNN and CNBC. CNN is also hosting a Democratic debate on Oct. 13.

It is unclear if future 2016 debates — especially on the Democratic side — can keep up the buzz generated by Trump's sparring with the debate hosts. The fallout dominated headlines for days after the event. 

And there are reasons apart from viewership why the debates won't bring in Super Bowl-type ad dollars, according to ad experts.

"The debates are certainly entertaining, but the subject matter is obviously more serious and because it's politically related, it's not going to attract such a fun, party atmosphere," said Siltanen, who has taken partial credit for helping to develop the "To the crazy ones" ad campaign for Apple.

"All of this means you are less likely to see fun, blockbuster super-commercials as you would with the Super Bowl. So you are less likely to see spots that have 'talk value' that extends beyond the event," he added.

Super Bowl ads, seen by 114 million people earlier this year, can cost $4 million for a 30-second spot. Ads during a regular Sunday night football game can it about $623,000, while a package of ads during "The Walking Dead" can hit $413,000, according to 2014 statistics gathered by Variety.   

The Super Bowl averages out to a cost of roughly $35 per every thousand of viewers, about the same amount as a hit show, according to Forbes. According to 2013 statistics compiled by Pew Research, typical programming on Fox and CNN are much lower, ranging between a cost per thousand viewers of between $5.33 and $5.95. That is an average rate, which could certainly increase for prime-time events like a debate.